What Makes Your Subject Distinctive?

As law schools continue to develop their learning outcomes, an important question we all should consider is, “what makes my course distinctive?”  For example, in my research on assessment in legal research courses, I was struck by how much the analytical and problem solving skills developed by legal research instruction are the same as those developed by many other courses in the law school curriculum.  That led me to ask, “what makes legal research instruction distinctive?”  The answer was not simply, as an outsider might suggest, that legal research classes teach tools for finding law (digests, Westlaw, etc.).  Rather, I was struck that legal research instruction is distinctive in the extent to which an effective legal researcher must have an appreciation for the power of taxonomies, must exercise imagination in the context of realistic boundaries of time, cost, and purpose, must be able to ask for help, and must develop strong metacognitive practices (to continually question “is this process working?”).  The difference is of degree rather than kind of course, but it is a distinctive difference nonetheless.

Given the narrow focus of legal education, it seems that this question of distinctiveness or “value added” is the most critical question I can ask in planning my courses.  Not that the distinctive outcomes of my courses should be the sole, or even dominant outcomes.  Legal education outcomes require an iterative process and cross-curricular experiences for students to become competent and to enable transfer of learning to new settings.  Yet, understanding what makes my outcomes distinctive forces me to justify my outcomes and consider their connections with other law school outcomes.

So what makes my outcomes in Professional Responsibility distinctive?  Certainly the identity of the anticipated uses of the doctrine we are learning leads me to choose to emphasize professional identity formation outcomes as important if not distinctive.  In most law school courses, students are learning the law to serve others and are encouraged to use, interpret, and advocate about the law to achieve a client’s objectives.  In Professional Responsibility, the students will be using the law to advise themselves.  My outcomes include expecting that students will be able to clarify their observational standpoint when considering issues of professional ethics; recognize that self interest clouds judgment and ways to gain more objectivity; and differentiate the approaches to interpretation of law that one might use to advocate for a client regarding past conduct from approaches that are wise, ethical, and effective when interpreting the law to guide our own future conduct.  Finding effective methods to assess students development of these perspective is a challenge but I have found that simply asking students to read cases of attorney discipline and ask, “what went wrong with the attorney’s thinking?” is a good place to start.

What makes your course outcomes distinctive?  How has that led to distinctive assessment practices?

Building on Best Practices now available as eBook

Are you trying to:

  • Develop a meaningful law school mission statement?
  • Understand new accreditation requirements, learning goals, and outcomes assessment?
  •  Expand your experiential offerings?  Decide whether to use modules or courses?  An on-site clinic, an externship, or community partnership?
  •  Teach ALL of your students in the most effective ways, using a full range of teaching methods?
  • Add to your curriculum more of the professional identity, leadership, intercultural, inter-professional and other knowledge, skills, and values sought by 21st century legal employers?
  • Lead thoughtfully in the face of the challenges facing legal education today?

These and other topics are addressed in Building on Best Practices:  Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World,  now available in ebook format from LexisNexis at no charge.

The print version is not yet out.  LEXIS-NEXIS is taking advance orders for $50, plus shipping.  BUT we understand that they will make one copy available to every US legal educator for free upon on request.  Details on this and international availability still to come.

Thanks, and congratulations, to book project sponsor Clinical Legal Education Association (CLEA), the more than fifty legal educators who participated as authors, and the countless others who assisted as readers and in numerous other ways.

And, a huge shout-out to my wonderful and talented co-editors, Lisa Radke Bliss, Carrie Wilkes Kaas, and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez.

Law School Curriculum Review & Reform: Lessons Learned

In 2012, my dean asked me to chair a review our curriculum at the University of Tennessee College of Law. He asked our committee to consider the current three-year curriculum in light of our learning outcomes. It sounded like an overwhelming job.

During the first year of our curriculum review, I remember reading the book Reforming Legal Education: Law Schools at the Crossroads. Michael Hunter Schwartz and Jeremiah Ho wrote a great chapter titled Curriculum Reforms at Washburn University School of Law.

I would describe Schwartz and Ho’s chapter in two ways: (1) full of practical suggestions about the process for reviewing curriculum and considering reform; and (2) terrifying.

I stole many of the practical, process-related suggestions from their chapter. We had a committee retreat where we spent an uninterrupted day discussing the curriculum. Committee members went door-to-door and talked to each faculty member about the curriculum and possible changes. The committee developed two proposals for curriculum reform and discussed these proposals with the full faculty. I am sure there are other ideas we borrowed from Schwartz and Ho.

The terrifying part of Schwartz and Ho’s chapter was this line: “[O]ne might conclude that, after nearly three years of work, Washburn’s curriculum reform efforts have been unsuccessful.”

Three years? We may do this for three years and feel it wasn’t a success?

Of course, Schwartz and Ho go on to explain that there were successes in the three-year process. (The Washburn faculty reached a consensus on key issues and made progress toward some important goals detailed in the chapter). But it was daunting for me to think that the process would be difficult and might take three years.

In 2015, the University of Tennessee College of Law faculty adopted a package of significant changes to the 1L curriculum. While the substance of those changes is important, I think it is also important to contribute to Schwartz and Ho’s discussion about the process. So here are a few of the lessons I learned about the process of curriculum review and reform over the past three years.

1) Three Years is a Good Start. When we started, three years sounded like a long time to work on a curriculum review. I now know that three years of curriculum review passes in the blink of an eye. We needed that much time to understand our curriculum, talk to faculty, alumni and students, research what was happening elsewhere, create proposals for change, seek more input, and generate new proposals.

2) Less is More. Our committee accomplished something in three years because we narrowed the focus. Even though our original committee charge was to review the entire curriculum, we ended up focusing on the first year curriculum. That was a more manageable project. Also related to “less is more,” after two years we realized the committee was spread too thin. Our dean originally gave the curriculum review charge to the Academic Standards & Curriculum Committee. For two years that committee juggled the curriculum review and the regular business of Academic Standards. In the third year, our dean created a separate task force to focus solely on the curriculum review. That change made us much more efficient in year three and allowed us to reach a faculty vote on a package of proposals.

3) Seek Input from Faculty, Alumni, and Students Multiple Times, in Multiple Settings. Throughout the three years of our curriculum review, we talked to faculty, alumni, and students. When we met with alumni and students, we gave them the chance to address the room, answer questions anonymously (with clickers), and respond in writing to questions. We often continued these discussions on the phone, by email, and in person. We were able to compile all of this input and share it with the faculty. The committee spent even more time gathering ideas from the faculty in one-on-one meetings, in multiple forums, in small group sessions, and in many informal conversations over the course of three years. Seeking input in all of these settings helped us learn from all of our stakeholders and resulted in a variety of suggestions.

4) Compromise Can Lead to Something Better. Near the end of our second year of the curriculum review, the committee presented the faculty with two packages of possible reforms to the 1L curriculum. Discussing and debating the merits of these proposals helped the committee see potential problems we had missed and opportunities for meaningful change. With that information, we met with small groups of faculty to generate ideas about new classes and other innovations. In these meetings, members of the faculty often suggested they wanted to take the lead in making a change or teaching something new. As the third year came to a close, the faculty approved a package of 1L curriculum changes that was substantially better than what the committee had suggested at the end of year two.

5) Curriculum Review “Success.” Three years ago, it was unnerving to read that Schwartz and Ho thought we might not find curriculum reform “success” in three years. But I now know that is a good thing. Curriculum review and reform does not have to be perfect, because we are never done. Curriculum review should be an ongoing process. This allows us to identify what is working and determine what we will do next as we prepare students for practice.

A 21st Century “generalist legal education”? Skills & professional identity focused.

More musings on generalist v. specialist education, and how much doctrine law schools need to teach.

A conversation with one of our University of Washington alums — Leo Flor, Westpoint grad, Gates Public Service Law Scholar, Equal Justice Works Fellow at Northwest Justice Project, and spark plug for the new resource Representing Washington Veterans  — has me chewing on whether we need a new understanding of what a “generalist legal education” means.

Leo noted that the JD is often viewed as a relevant generalist credential, even though most law school grads move into traditional bar-passage-required “law practice” jobs.  And he observed that many job postings for alternative positions list an MBA or MPA as a relevant qualification, but not the JD.

The traditional generalist education of my era, and to a significant extent still, was intended to teach a set of analytical skills and and expose students to a broad range of legal doctrine potentially relevant to a general practitioner and to passing the bar exam. Though passing the bar remains important and is a significant factor in designing the educational program for lower tier schools, few 21st century lawyers are truly general practitioners.

Perhaps the generalist foundation needed in this era is built on skills, more than doctrinal knowledge.  And for Leo’s purpose not only skills in a technician sense.  Skills also in a “professional identity” sense.  Self-awareness & understanding of ones’ own gifts.  Leadership and interpersonal skills. Such an understanding of generalist could make the JD an appropriate credential for the types of job Leo described.

In a previous post, I suggested that that, at least for those students who come to law school with significant self-knowledge and experience, a substantively specialized curriculum could make sense, if combined with the general analytical and research skills to learn new areas.  This is not a new  idea.  Back in 2002 then-law-student Kevin E. Houchen self-published a detailed review of the trend toward certificate programs and concentrations, arguing that for a subset of students such specialization makes sense.

A decade later in 2012 the New York Times touted  NYU’s  limited moves toward greater specialization not just once, but again in an article  promoting specialization for law schools focused on Biglaw.

And in early May of this year 2015 at the National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services sponsored by the ABA and Stanford Law School, speakers reiterated these themes.   Richard Susskind (13:08) argued that legal education needs to train graduates for 21sth century jobs like legal project managers, legal process analysts, legal knowledge engineers, and legal risk management.  Prof. Deborah Rhode(13.29) observed that it “makes no sense to train Wall Street M &A lawyers the same way we train someone who’s going to be doing routine real estate and divorce work in a small town.”

It is not so very difficult to understand what acting on Prof. Rhode’s observation might mean.  As a practical matter, some curricular differentiation based on where graduates will practice already takes place, linked primarily to  different levels in the law school hierarchy.  Beyond that, many schools offer an extensive enough curriculum – both in doctrine and skills — to permit considerable specialization aimed at traditional law practice niches, even beyond formal concentration tracks and certificate programs.

For more specialized training law schools that offer extensive LL.M. programs routinely allow students to complete an accelerated JD/LL.M in three calendar years.  In the tax field, where the LL.M. has long been de rigueur, many schools provide such opportunities, including NYU, the long-time leader in tax LL.M’s.  And increasingly, schools educate students not just in substantive tax specialties, but also — using my own school, the University of Washington as an example — with  tax-focused skills and clinical training for both JD. and LL.M. students.

My hunch is that increasing numbers of students already opt to specialize, sometimes with a substantive law focus, often combined with a skills focus, e.g.  corporate deals with drafting or criminal & tort law with trial advocacy.

Richard Susskind’s challenge is a bigger stretch for legal education, though, again, some initiatives are visible, such as Michigan State‘s Reinvent Law Laboratory.

A key challenge for law schools is to learn how to identify prospective students or develop admitted ones who understand their life goals and values, and their intellectual and personal gifts well enough to make intelligent decisions around specialization.  To meet that  challenge, a holistic approach to education is needed –whether understood in the MacCrate framework of knowledge,  skills and values, or the Carnegie framework of cognitive, professional skills and ethical professional identity apprenticeships.

Inner Development, Community, Social Justice (Concurrent Session, AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education)

Last, but not least, in this series highlighting lessons from experts in other disciplines relevant to how to navigate the chaotic “new normal”  in legal education: Thursday’s concurrent session organized by Tennessee’s Paulette Williams:  “A Commitment to Inner Development: Connecting the “New Normal” with Clinics’ Social Justice Mission”.

The session brought  Edward Groody and Timothy Dempsey from the Community Building Institute in Tennessee.  The Institute helps social service and criminal justice organizations become more effective by training participants in community building practices.  Taking an evidence-based approach built on motivational interviewing, trauma-informed care, and pro-social supports, community building is a “highly experiential process that helps participants remove barriers to communication and unlearn unproductive attitudes and behaviors.”

Groody began the session with a detailed overview of a four-stage process for building community:

  • Pseudo-community
  • Chaos
  • Emptying/Letting Go
  • Community

That process adds an important step — emptying/letting go — to Bruce Tuckman’s familiar “forming, storming, norming, performing” model of group formation.  My own interpretation of this additional,  third step is that it provides space for  participants to recognize,  and learn skills to address, the emotional issues that so often get in the way of honest connection with others.

Dempsey then shared powerful stories of how that process helps ex-offenders with post-prison re-entry,  allowing them to move past behavioral responses that may have seemed — and perhaps were — functional in their previous lives, but would block their efforts to move forward.   Or, to put it another way, this step acknowledges that in order to take advantage of education or employment opportunities, people need to let go of fears, resentments or trauma.  This is challenging work that is the foundation of many spiritual traditions, but can help build strong connections with others.

Time constraints prevented Paulette Williams from speaking in detail about how she makes use of this process in her clinical teaching work.  I hope she finds other forums for sharing those experiences and insights.

The insights of this community building process struck me as relevant not only to social justice and clinical legal education work, but also to faculty interactions within our law schools.  From another time and place, I well remember a year when every faculty meeting resulted in controversy, usually about something relatively minor that seemed to be a proxy for other, larger, but unacknowledged issues festering beneath the surface.    I suspect that many faculties are experiencing something similar as they operate  in the  current climate of uncertainty and change, too often getting stuck in the fear those conditions foster.  It’s  difficult for me to imagine applying this model in the typical law school environment.  But successfully moving through the “emptying/letting go” phase, as individuals and a group,  could be oh, so helpful!

Lessons from “Counseling Our Students” (Mini-Plenary at AALS Conference on Clinical Education)

At the recent AALS Conference on Clinical Education two additional sessions provided important insights from experts iin other disciplines on how to operate effectively in the midst of the current period of change in legal education.

Wednesday;s Mini-Plenary on Counseling Our Students In the New Normal included an inspiring guest speaker who was even more impressive as a listener.

Moderated by Mercer’s Tim Floyd, the session began with a helpful overview of the current state of the job market (bottom line:  recovering, slowly) by Abraham Pollack, GW’s  Professional Development dean. But the centerpiece of the session was Carolyn McKanders, Co-Director and Director or Organizational Culture, Thinking Collaborative and, not incidentally, mother of Tennessee’s Karla McKanders,

Carolyn brilliantly demonstrated “cognitive coaching” (check out the app!) in an unscripted coaching session that allowed Mary Lynch (yes, that Mary Lynch,  Editor of this blog) to expand  her acting career into improv. The session was designed to help Mary think through her goals and approaches in counseling students on career development in an environment where predictable and linear career tracks are no longer the norm.

After the role play Carolyn summarized three keys to cognitive coaching:  pausing, paraphrasing and posing questions (with a rising inflection that communicates curiosity and openness, not control or credibility).  The beauty of this approach is that it helps the individual “self-monitor, self-analyze, and self-evaluate“.

The session certainly reinforced three lessons that clinicians should know; after all, a foundational goal of clinical legal education is fostering reflection, and most of us teach interviewing and counseling, at least to some extent.

  • First, the power of listening.  In a world of fast talking, sometimes monologue-happy, often living-in-our-heads law professors, so easy for this lesson to “go missing”  if we ruminate worriedly, trying to cope with the new normal in faculty and committee meetings and informal conversations.
  • Second, the value of paraphrasing for understanding to ensure accurate communication.
  • And finally, the importance of  founding our questions on authentic curiosity — listening in order to understand, not to counter an argument.

In a constantly changing world, where so many verities are in play, it’s too easy for us to get stuck in fear and suspicion.  Though the stated rationale for the mini-plenary was to help us counsel students, for me it spoke at least as powerfully to how we can most effectively interact  with our colleagues.  And, perhaps, “counsel” ourselves.

In the next, and final post of this series, I’ll discuss a Thursday concurrent that linked “inner development” with community building and social justice.

Birth, Maturity, Creative Destruction & Renewal At AALS Clinical Conference

As someone who collaborated on a concurrent session titled “Facing Our Fears in Changing Times” at the AALS Conference on Clinical Legal Education, it’s probably not surprising that I was especially drawn to sessions that brought in models or speakers from other disciplines to provide insight on how to operate effectively in the midst of the current period of change in legal education.

In addition to my last post on Michele Weise’s Closing Plenary, in this and my next two posts, I’ll discuss three other provocative sessions that addressed different aspects of this theme.

On Tuesday morning my University of Washington colleagues Jennifer Fan and Lisa Kelly, worked with Rutgers-Newark’s Randi Mandelbaum and Syracuse’s Mary Helen McNeal to introduce the “liberating structures eco-systems model” of leadership.  That model views organizational change as an  infinity loop in which organizations move through four cycles that call for different styles of leadership:

Stage                                                   Leadership Style

Birth                                                     Entrepreneur

Maturity                                                Manager

Creative Destruction                           Heretic

Renewal                                               Networker

The model suggests that embedded in the cycle are two “traps“:

1. Between the Maturity and Creative Destruction stages lies the Rigidity Trap of “not letting go” of what the organization has birthed and brought to maturity.  Staying stuck in the past and wedded to the old ways of doing things.

2. Between Creative Destruction and Renewal lies the Poverty Trap of “not investing enough to accomplish renewal”.

Sound familiar? The session included an exercise where attendees decided which stage  they perceived their individual clinic, program, institution, or the clinical legal education movement to be in.  Participants  then added on the infinity loop diagram post-its with their results.  Although responses were spread around the loop, most clustered  among Maturity — Creative Destruction — and Renewal.  Most responses addressed clinical programs and law schools.

I find this framework a helpful reminder that our current struggles are “normal” and that they won’t last forever.  And inspiration to let go of fears and rigidity.

I’m grateful to my former colleague Tim Jaasko-Fisher for his work with liberating structures in the Court Improvement Academy of UW Law’s Children and Youth Advocacy Clinic.

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